November 16, 2011 // Stephen Kuperberg
Many of us who live on, work with or care about the campus community have followed news and events surrounding Penn State’s storied football program in recent days with shock, horror and revulsion. Allegations of sexual abuse are that much more stunning when the allegations place those acts at the very heart of an institution that had fostered an image of earnest work ethic and a bygone era of humility and honesty. We can all be saddened for the victims of this abuse, for the irreparable damage done to an athletic program that brought attention and prominence to its school and to the even greater damage done to the already-tarnished image of college athletics as a whole.
There’s an important lesson here for the campus Israel network, too—one that goes far beyond our regular struggles to build a more vibrant campus environment for Israel. It goes to the heart of who and what we are—to the notion of integrity.
I’ve heard many definitions of integrity. Dictionary.com defines it as “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” I have heard one prominent supporter of Jewish campus life define integrity as “doing what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.” Authors write books about it; clergy give sermons on it; coaches claim to support it in their teams.
To me, integrity isn’t what you say, or even what you do; with due respect to the proponents of the definitions above, that describes dependability or reliability, but not integrity. A person can be entirely reliable in their actions or reactions to external stimuli, but that does not make them a person of integrity, any more than a coin-operated vending machine has integrity. Integrity conveys something more—a conscious choice of action that is not only dependable or predictable, but reaches something deeper and greater.
I would even take issue with the dictionary definition that equates integrity with honesty. As much as I admire a person of honesty, I can also imagine a person of great integrity who recognizes when unflinching honesty would not serve.
Integrity is not just dependability and reliability; it’s not just adherence to the rules; and it’s not just unflinching honesty. Integrity is being prepared to do the difficult thing, in a difficult circumstance and to stand for what’s right even when the reliable, dependable or contextually honest thing would be to do something far easier . Integrity is possession of the strength of character and will to hold to your highest principles, even when immediate or narrow self-interest dictates otherwise.
Indeed, integrity is much more than that—it is not just holding onto that strength of character for a day, or a week, or a year, but always and forever. It means having it when you are a student or collegiate athlete; when you are a graduate assistant; when you are an assistant coach or head coach; when you are an athletic director; and when you are a university president. It means living a life and behaving in such a way that those highest principles dictate every action, because unlike college athletics, the world keeps score on integrity every moment of every day.
What does this have to do with pro-Israel activity on campus? Everything.
Those who are committed to creating a positive campus environment for Israel must also demonstrate that they possess integrity. Failing to do so means enormous damage to themselves and to the cause that they represent. While we know that only a select few members of the campus community will have the fortune to experience Israel first-hand, the experience and interaction with a campus Israel activist can and will shape the view that many on campus have of Israel for years to come. Integrity is important, then, because of the representative character that it reflects.
Behaving with integrity is the most compelling way that we as a campus Israel community can demonstrate to others the courage and power of our convictions; in short, integrity is our most important tool as advocates. I learned this time and again as a courtroom advocate, and continue to see it in countless environments: The dependability, reliability and honesty that are attributes of a person of integrity also persuade and attract others to believe in the advocate’s cause. It communicates, more powerfully than any advocacy tactic or technique ever could, that the advocate’s cause is right and just, and that we as advocates are unafraid of close scrutiny of the justice of our cause.
Living with integrity is seldom easy. The perceived rewards of slipping away from integrity tempt continually; those who succeed without integrity taunt, silently, at those who choose instead to live with principles. It’s not as easy, and seldom as immediate, to see the hollowness of such success. Penn State football offers us the dramatic, and tragic, case in point: Regardless of what is ultimately proven of the horrific allegations at hand, the accomplishments of 50 years of college athletes associated with that program will forever be tarnished with a terrible stain.
The campus Israel network is comprised of people—students, faculty, campus professionals, administrators, and more—who choose a more difficult, but more principled, course, precisely because the rewards may be less immediate but more important. It’s an important life lesson that will serve them well when they’re 18, 28, or 88. It means putting aside personal interest and gain at times to adhere to the greater mission that we as a campus Israel network have committed to upholding.
Things that are worthwhile seldom are easy. A month ago, one might have been tempted to look to the Penn State football program as an example of such character. Now we must look there again, but for the very different reason of a powerful cautionary tale and reminder of the centrality of integrity to all that we do.